Respite

I’d forgotten how this feels. The sudden stab of excitement and sorrow behind the eyes; a beloved old song in the mind, a memory of golden dusk, and the trembling train beneath me.
I’m going home.

It’s always been this way. Wherever I stray to and long for, whoever I am, I find myself back in Sussex – now able to make the journey alone, fighting the grief-tide of bad memories. But the places you stay in and the places you grow, are known through sleepovers and house parties, the feel of sandstone under the hands and the hot smell of ferns in summer. The snap of blue ice at the riverbank, watching the white water chase itself down to the sea, where raw cliffs are a splinter of rocks and bones at the peak and the fall. The lonesome-cowboy gulls, and pale sheen of an oily sky at the horizon. Pebbles underfoot (hot coals) and tottering iron ladies with mislaid gems in the swirl of the tide.

A patchwork of green and gold, lapping up to the chin of the Downs. Cold green echoes of Lake Rocks and caves, where – perhaps – my sandstone scrawls linger, from another lifetime.

The rose-fire of spring dawn over the town. All those domes and granite slopes. A cat lolling lazy in the rising heat.

The ice-rime steeples and spires, a ragged raven’s wing in the monochrome air. Gravestones like eyes, watching those of us still alive, still waiting.

Names that haunt my memory in station pings and announcements (trips to the City to visit my father when he worked late: gold windows threading a skyline necklace.) Sketchy road signs at the corners of life; all those echoes and soft sounds, with -hurst and -ham and -field; -ridge and -brook. So different from the jagged names of the North, with -tor and -esk and -stone, and no more or less beautiful. Maps of the landscape in etymology.

I belong to both and to neither. Born in the Midlands, alive in Germany and rebuilt in the South, but known in the North by my blood. Abandoned rail lines and quarry pits for a playground, buddleia and butterflies and craggy sheep for friends.

One pill box after another, lining the land against invaders, now welcoming me home as pale ghosts in the night. As kids, we tattooed the walls with paint, put our hands into deep rifts that knew the heavy embrace of guns. Sat on the boxy roof to watch the sun peel down the sky, listening to the wind keen through the door. Nature reclaims us all, in the end.

The night is a blur of orange and black; the train’s dwindling lope is a gnarled route to the station. The woman opposite me has her feet up, one hand curled about a bottle of white, the other twining its fingers through her lovers’ dark hair. They find their faces, silver in the window.

I like late evening journeys. They feel like the less formal after-party.

A life in cats

My childhood was filled with cats, of all varieties and many personalities – the tame and the feral, the disenchanted and the loving, the broken and the pampered. My grandparents, to this day, run a cattery and boarding kennels in the south; though it no longer falls under their jurisdiction to do so, they would take in stray dogs and cats brought in by the local council workers, and any concerned civilians. I grew accustomed to the sight of a cowering shadow in the back of the white van, specially painted with their company logo, for – when still able to do so – either Nanna or Granddad would go out on round trips of the county, picking up the abandoned results of a call-out, to bring back to the safety of the kennels. There were the dogs who snarled through terror-rippled lips; the cats with needle punctures in their necks, after being used for practise (or fun) by addicts. There were the raw bones and the foamy mange, the ticks and the fleas, the wide eyes and the dry mouths. These were the strays, the unloved animals; some were in much better condition, but bereft of a human companion all the same, if an elderly owner had passed away.

After a visit to the vets, the unfortunates were made to feel at home. There was no discrimination between breeds, except in terms of size – Granddad built everything by hand, and the sprawling outlay formed a warren of runs and kennels and hidey-holes, perches and scratching posts. I can close my eyes and remember it all, so – the moonlight slanting through the small-hole wire, licking off a wary eye peeking back at me from inside a boxy house. Heat emanating from the overhead red bulb on frosty days, and the fitted electric blanket lapping up in woolly waves to the Hobbit-hole entrance. No visitors allowed inside without permission, and then only to keep those who had once known owners accustomed to the smell and touch of humans. That being said, the kennel maids working for my grandparents were so easy-going, I was often allowed inside with them (so long as I kept myself a shadow along the wall) when they went to turn blankets and pick up litter, sweep the granite floors. Those runs and houses were spotless, with no cloth used twice, and each brush head disinfected between shifts, to avoid cross-contamination.

Feet bare on the pocked floor, hands by my sides – often crouched low, because I was learning to read, and had picked up on the fact that animals will trust you more when on their level – I waited. Reaching out a hand, I offered my fingertips to the little pale nose. This is how you must introduce yourself to a cat, with or without the aid of T.S Eliot; scent is the first port-of-call for bonding, and a cat will grant you leave to touch it if the situation appears non-threatening. No staccato sounds or movements, and I had somehow picked up on the fact that cats – like dogs – seem to dislike being stared at. Perhaps this is the real reason why I find it difficult to look anyone in the eye.

My grandparents took to breeding cats and dogs – British Blues and German Shepherds, respectively – and it was through this that I learned about pedigree and bloodlines. I have no preferences, except where personality and coat are concerned. Growing up around larger dogs (trained in the lower fields to perform for shows), I developed a respect for the canidae, if not as close an affinity as with the cats – dogs always came across as being rather wet, easy to read and to please. Slobbery tongues, prone to noise. The cats that wandered about the outhouses and bungalow, on the other hand, were evasive and mysterious as the twilight that made their eyes glow, the tapetum lucidum. They would disappear down sunstruck alleys, over fences into fields of lush green grass, and – try as I might to follow them around the corners of the world – I could never quite squeeze through. A slow, creeping hatred for my own form took hold around age 6-7, and I longed for the curved bones and dexterous spine of the cat, if only to walk where they did – to find those secret places.

Still, there was nothing stopping me from imitation, and I took to wearing the trailing black tail and tall ears, hinged to a headband, that my mother had made for my “cat dance” with the local troupe. What the neighbours must have thought about me hanging around in the bushes bordering their gardens, God only knows; but it was fun to jump out at my older sister when she walked up the drive with her bike, or to swat at her head with a lazy hand while lying along the low-slung branches of the gnarled oak in our back garden. Needless to say, she wasn’t impressed. But she also couldn’t climb.

It was on that oak that I taught my babies the fine art of elevation – or at least, that’s what I told myself, aged 7.5 years, the proud “mother” of two scraps of black ‘n white fluff. Chloe and Jess came into the family on the tail of my first cat, a rescue from the shelter, who was originally called “Blossom”; she would through no less than five names in the first week, before my exasperated mother clamped down and decided on “Zoey.” My heart breaks a little to think of her, those lean paws and the streamline tail, the tall ears and bright green eyes, which earned her “Gooseberry” (the third name.) Poor little mite was just over a year old, and had been with us for around six months, when a hit-and-run took her out in the pale morning. It was the day before we would move to the new house (my brother was on the way), and I came home from school expecting to pack the last of my books up – not the cold body of my cat in a cardboard box, to take with us for internment in the back garden. That was the first time I ever saw my father cry, in his quiet way. It’s never left me.

I have one photo of Zoey, eyes ablaze with the flash, stuck into my memory book. It sits alongside cut-outs of the innumerable pictures taken of the cats that would follow her – Jess and Chloe, the afore-mentioned babies, who were brought in to ease the sting of loss. I chose Chloe for the way she put that little triangle face to one side and mewed up at me, the first kitten to come running to the door when we went for a viewing of the litter. My sister chose Jess, curled up in half of a football, fast asleep and twitching her fluffy tail in a lively dream. They grew into crotchety sisters, with feline life imitating human art, and the four of us chased each other up and down the garden on long golden afternoons. Jess developed a habit of sleeping on the compost heap – not useful, given her semi-length coat – and would trail twigs and moss into the house with the sleepy wistfulness of her nature. Chloe was a bit dim; I’m sorry, that’s the only way to put it. She took to watching the washing go around in the machine and walked into the sliding back door more times than I count. Glass appeared to defy her perceptions; but the part that made my sides ache (and still does, in memory) came when she would sit back in stunned silence, before jumping up to do it all over again a minute or so later.

The Birmans were something else entirely.

I had started to collect Your Cat magazine, a monthly publication, the glossy pages of which filled up my childhood with author interviews, articles, problem pages, fiction, merchandise – all devoted, of course, to cats. I learned about kitty hygiene and territories, the various means of marking; and thence to cat shows and breeding, pedigrees, elaborating on what I’d picked up from my grandparents. The British Blues were friendly and loving, with large copper eyes and plush fur, rounded bones; but it was the Birman breed I fell in love with, caught between the pages of the 1995 June issue. An article-interview with a breeder, demonstrating how to wash her blue-point Birman kitten Willow, prior to a show. I was hooked. Those gorgeous baby-blue eyes and slate-coloured face were like nothing I had ever seen. The idea of a cat wearing a mask intrigued me, and I soon learned more about the “Himalayan” points of various pedigrees (usually comprising face, legs and tail.) But what really set off the picture, were those snow-white gauntlets and gloves on her paws. A cat wearing mittens? Too good to be true, surely.

Attending my first show in December (it would become an annual tradition with my father, cats being one of the few things we could agree upon and discuss at length), I was faced with reality – row upon row of it. Cages filled with every conceivable colour and point and coat, with personalities mixed as a bag of marbles. The names themselves are delicious to pronounce – Egyptian Mau. Norwegian Forest (or “Norsk Skaukatt”.) Persian. Siamese. Bengal. Tabby. And of course, the variations in coat markings – tipped, spotted, smoke, solid, cameo. These are the details that have never left me, despite all else I’ve lost grip on. My middle school Maths teacher once remarked that if my sums were anywhere close to the doodles and scribblings in the back of my exercise book – Nile eyes, scrappy poems – I’d be flying ahead. This seems to have been a life-theme.

Determined to become the youngest Birman breeder, by age 11 I was the proud owner (and exasperated “mother”) of a 12-week old Birman. Willow gave me a run for my money, with the sort of intelligence that defies gravity, and systematically reduces nerves to shreds. By her second week in the house, she had learned how to unlatch doors, reach the highest branch of the oak (usually before I was due in school) and had eaten an entire block of Cheddar, roughly the same size as she was. You’d have thought this would warn me off – but I recognized a kindred spirit when I saw it. That bratty kitten wasn’t about to grow up in a hurry, and into her adult life, she continued to give the run-around, by introducing live and half-alive mice to every room in the house.

Fern, her half-sister, turned up a year later. Fern was a sneak; there’s no other way to put it. Stealth lived in her little bones, and because she didn’t grow larger than a stoat, she could get into the sort of places her cobbier companions couldn’t. So we began to lose chocolate muffins and biscuits – listening for the sly munching, we’d find her wedged behind the sofa, wrestling a cake into her mouth as quickly as she could. The best moments came when she had already done the deed, and – when confronted – batted her blue eyes, and declared herself indignantly innocent. All the while, licking crumbs from her flaring whiskers and soggy chin.

The worst times came when she developed FIP, or Feline Infectious Peritonitis. A horrible illness, it generally strikes most cats before they turn four – Fern was three days shy of this birthday when she died, a wraith of her former self (and she didn’t have much to lose as it was.) My last memory of her is that little head resting on the rim of the water bowl in the garden, chin dipped into the water, mouth closed. She was too weak to drink. I took her in my hands and, dipping a finger to the bowl, drip-fed her. She died that evening, under a sky the colour of her golden-cream fur.

A long period of my life passed by without the presence of cats. Anorexia had rammed itself into me, to the hilt. I lived from day to day, barely able to function, let alone care for another soul. So when recovery glinted in dawn-hues on the horizon, and I landed my first full-time job in 2007 – finally well enough to work – how better to celebrate, than to re-establish contact with the feline world?

Kaiser was born of a seal-point Birman father and a silver tabby Persian mother. From the former, he took the beautiful Birman form and his red points; from the latter, the docile nature and gacky tear ducts inherent of certain longhairs. Already too long in the bone to sell easily, he nonetheless had the winning smile of a kitten who knows that his future lies outside the door – curling up in my lap when I sat down, cross-legged as ever, he began to purr.

Take me home with you. Take me home.

I’d had my eye on a four week old bundle of blue-point fluff; a half-brother of the lean, ruddy tom clambering up to paw at my neck. By the time he had started whispering sweet nothings into my ear, that unique kitten-speak of purr and mrrowl, I couldn’t remember why I’d had an aversion to red points before. Some of the cobby lads I’d seen on the show bench had put me off – staggering in their massive sweep of cream and apricot, they seemed at odds with the white socks and startling blue eyes of the breed. Kaiser was different. His fur, even into adulthood, clung low to his body in the manner of a Burmese; Fern’s coat had this texture too, and I do wonder if there are in fact two types of Birman fur, that I just haven’t read about to confirm yet; for it seems the other “type” falls into the “woolly mammoth” style, with less of a silken sheen than a hint of wadding.

Whatever the type, Birman fur sticks to any carpet like cotton wool. My mother forked out on a specially-designed vacuum cleaner, just to bring up those creamy guard hairs, which Kai was fond of scratching out when he’d been into the garden and collected a goodly assortment of detritus. Burrs, caterpillars, leaves, soil – the cat who had once refused to accept that the stairs had a connection with the ground floor, soon progressed into a mini monster with a vast territorial eye. His favourite tree was a somewhat stunted specimen, but its broad sweep of branches meant he could lie low for an afternoon, blinking in the sunlight and keeping a half-eye on the blackbirds, with their cunning beaks and sharp-shine feathers; the pigeons, with their docile skirling swoop over the grass, and the squirrels, who swiftly became his nemesis. Other cats, however, filled him with a fear that saw the monster become a wretched yowling soul, calling from the depths of Dante’s hell; I’d listen to the distant echoes ripple closer and closer, until at last, through the back door and hurrying up the stairs with a bonfire tail, he’d cower on Ma’s bed (or under mine), swearing under his breath. Hunkering down to peer at him, I’d be met by a pair of blue-black eyes, and a breathless little gasp.

Going to eat me, Mum.
No they’re not. You have to stand up for yourself.
But they’d still eat me.
Well, you could choke them on the way down.
Hm.

He was a curious little tom, in all senses of the word. Wrapping himself around my neck, more boa than feather once he’d attained his full weight, Kai would whisper editing tips into my ear as I typed. If you’ve never had a cat insert fish-breath into a sentence, then you’re missing out on a crucial sensory trick. That being said, he did like nibble my hair thoughtfully, or bat at the strands when I paused to think-twiddle them around my fingers. Another quirk of his was less a curiosity than a cunning ploy to keep me young – or old, I never did work out which. When my alarm went off at 5am, I’d crawl around my bedroom with heavy-dark eyes and fumbling hands; he liked to move things just out of reach (keys, make-up, hair bands), while offering me breakfast from his own tray.

Go on, it’s good for you.
I can’t eat that. It’s yours.
D’you want to get up the hill or not?

This, while slipping out of the room with my access card dangling between his teeth. He had something of the canine spirit about his mouth. When Ma introduced him to helium balloons, it became a common sight to see the small apricot body proudly trotting about the house, a coil of shiny ribbon taut in his teeth, the red or blue ball of air bouncing happily above him – occasionally batting against furniture with a sound I imagine to be like sand sifting through an hourglass. Of course, one burst on him – it’s the old biker’s joke, you’re not in until you’ve come off, and got back on. Kai did get back on, though it took a few hours to convince him to come out from behind the sofa, to sniff dispiritedly at the sad little lump of jellied plastic on the carpet.

We bought him a new, extra strong balloon.

If I could be granted one wish, I’d have also bought him an extra strong heart. Things creep up on us without warning; what seemed solid and filled with forever comes apart with the weave of time or irrationality. No one could have predicted that Kai was born with a defective heart – certainly, his breeder hadn’t noticed any problems. I’d first put the raspy little cough, like dry snowflakes, down to his gacky tear ducts – maybe they were impeding his airways. But no, even when clear, he would occasionally put his head down and struggle. This came on with a suddenness that swept away all annoyances, irritations, concern for the world. I no longer called Ma’s house home, and the distance was all the more unbearable for it taking 2.5 hours to get back, a fair wadge of money, and repeated calls to my employer to actually scrape together some time off. I’d started to consider myself jinxed where Birmans are concerned, having already lost Willow to stomach cancer three years before (she had gone to live with my father and brother, to become queen of her own little territory of flower boxes and pristine lawns) and Fern, who had barely begun her adult life before fading out into evening. Still, she had clung on for far longer than the vet’s estimate, and so it was with Kai – fully a year after his diagnosis, he was still with my Ma, though creeping about the house like a little old man, rather than the proud strut of a boy with his string-tow toy. I’m sorry to say that I wasn’t there at the end, though – in my selfish way – I would rather hang onto the memories of him, splendid in the sunlight of a windowsill, chittering at the flies and birds with that open-mouth staccato of a hunter. Or watching, waiting for me on the top step when I arrived home, back bent and legs weary from cycling; those ears would appear like twin shark fins, the blue eyes turned to black moons; his spine was a ridged mountain range. I’d hear the swishing tail slipper-slide against the wall. Forgetting my burning calves and thighs, I’d crouch low – lower – and prowl up on hands and knees to meet him –

Receiving a swat from a well-to-do glove for my trouble, and a fiend’s grin, before the red tail sailed like a flag in my face, as Kai dashed into my room to hide under the bed. He tended to forget that I could easily crawl in after (a necessity when he was a kitten, and prone to hoarding food), but I’d give him the goal, since he’d caused me to crease up after a long shift – something only a cat should attempt, and invariably pulls off. Shucking off my bag, I’d listen to him whickering under the bed, pleased with his joke; for a punchline, he’d sometimes dash back out in a whirl of cotton and teeth, to nip at my bare ankle, before plunging back down the stairs with the feet of an elephant.

I never did teach him the fine art of toe-walking.

This month marks a year since his death. The event itself was painful, something I don’t think on, because it stuns me to silence. My Ma called me at work. I remember how cold the bricks were at my back, leaning up against the wall on the stairwell. The wind was whipping leaves, great coppery wreathes. I’d known it was coming – she had warned me over the months, how much his health had deteriorated – but it had been the lengthy process of snakes and ladders. Each time we thought he might go, Kai would suddenly develop an appetite; when it seemed he might see another year, his fur fell away into tired rags. Running a hand over his back, Ma described it as a series of knots. His tail, that ostrich-plume sweep, became a blank exclamation mark. His eyes – those were probably the worst, apart from his heaving ribs. Ma said he would spend hours staring straight ahead, at nothing, at everything, at a world he was leaving, at the place where a cat goes to purr when in pain.

Oh yes, cats purr without pleasure, too; a grim smile of a sound.

My friends on Twitter were unique waves of comfort, keeping me afloat. I don’t remember much else about that day, except how my fingertips turned white when I went out for a walk.

It wasn’t a peaceful end for him. That thought alone turns me pale; heart failure is as shocking, as undignified and full of pathos as any death can be, and I wish to Whoever that I could –
At least have held him.

He sits in an urn now, on Ma’s mantelpiece, still lording it over the fireplace; in front of the rug where – sprawled out to catch the best of the heat, as only a cat can – he would disappear among the pale fluff, with only the occasional twitch of the apricot tail to break up the lines. Ma no longer lives in that house – over a decade, a divorce, my hospitalization, a staggered relationship and finally Kai’s death, she left the ghosts behind. In her new house, with its flag floors and stout doors, sprawling garden and sunswept views of fields, she has a man who has made her happier than I could possibly hope for, a dog and another cat. Arthur is a red point Birman. He has the lean lines of Kai, but the noseguard of a Norwegian Forest. His temperament is best described as Lord of the Manor, with teeth. Less malleable in cuddles – you can’t flop him in your arms, as Kai would loll with his head down – Arthur is nonetheless my Ma’s boy.

I miss the company of cats, for their furred presence and livewire chatter; the introspect of a rainy afternoon, curled up on my bed with a purring bookmark (Willow liked to save pages for me, with a twitching paw, flipping back over to point out useful quotes for school essays. That was her argument, anyway.) The fluid time of a summer afternoon, sprawling on a thin bed sheet with a warm lump at my back, to form a Yin/Yang. The whisper of paws denting an idea into snow, each step another thought
…..

Maybe when I am grown into myself, as a writer, and have earned enough to establish a working space filled with what I’d like to keep about me – Art Deco designs and paintings in Tonalism, seats of cigar-coloured leather that creak with antiquity, a desk scarred by children’s pens and tattoos of old ink, large candles sifting streams of frozen time down wine bottle necks – I’ll own another cat. We’ll hunt each other through the sly shadows of a study, over thick-piled carpet, to perch side-by-side on the moonlight sweep of a bay window overlooking the monochrome lawn. Snow under lamplight, orange haze and talon-trees; blue shadows and the smell of white musk. We’ll watch the foxes hunt rabbits in a light dusting of new fall, breath turning silver against the black – and find our reflections in the glass, one cat, one woman, and a life-age mixed somewhere in between.

baby birman

Reflections

The sky holds that curiously warm depth of blue that is undeniably autumnal; full of the dense sprays of brass sunlight, it seems to reflect the age of the year, its lines and wrinkles, its jaded eyes. For all that, it’s still a russet-apple smile.

The park is filled with wandering families again… haven’t we been here before? Wasn’t I only musing on such municipal things a breath-space ago, when the horizon had suddenly expanded like a cat’s eye, and I had watched the hawk become a dot upon it?

Standing on the top floor of the Nick the other day, I remembered how it felt when this phase of my life began. How much the world has changed since then; that place has changed me, in turn, and kept me going. Seeing friends dwindle along with the budget, I think – as I thought in that breath-space ago – that this will be our last year in the teetering tower of bricks and glass. I heard the wind sing through the trees, and watched the pigeons leave their shadows in pebble-patterns over the cars and vans in the yard. The sky was that same vivid autumnal blue, the sun brassy on leaves that danced in the freshening winds. Listening to Perfect Day (you’re going to reap just what you sew”) I wanted to remember it all. How it feels to belong somewhere; how it felt four years ago; how it will feel when it’s all gone.

What more to say that has not come before? I smile at my own doom-laden words these days. It was comforting – sort of – to read of that other lady who had the same tendency to think that time was always running out (if only to prove that we all get it wrong, and frequently, due to inhibitions rather than external factors.)

Still. That was then; this is now. Another Now. How many moments to make up a year, which seems like a replay of the last? If 2013 was the catalyst for the personal / domestic overhaul, surely 2014 has been the overture. Perhaps next year, I’ll find something approximating security and peace of mind. Going through a mousey-stage at the moment, I’m afraid to open my mouth in case of fucking up before an increasingly aware audience.
You know my flaws. My aspirations. I know them well, and more self-conscious than ever before, and the only comparison to make is that threadbare time just before the fall in the Fall; September-October 2001, starting at a new college among larger groups of more self-determined and talented peers. The duality of achievement in middle school was an awareness of burgeoning ambitions, where language and literature are concerned, and a very real fear of losing ground to others – of failure, of being left behind. While I thrive on competition, I loathe it in equal measure, because – when the countdown begins – I lose my nerve. The white noise intrudes, you count for shit, and before you know I’ve lost the thread of what I meant to say, to write, to opine, to declare as my truth.

The downward spiral is tedious, and excruciating. Self-contempt for falling into such pettiness as resentment of people who might be dear to me, and more accomplished. I grow afraid of losing them; too weak a person to sustain a relationship, while beating myself down, because – other than anorexia and compulsive exercising, degrading my body and mind over a progressive state of non-living – I don’t really have other talents. Back in A Levels, when it felt as though I was losing ground and with no hope of clawing back up, I cut my nose off to spite my face. I chose an eating disorder, walking away from all contact and relationships while numbing out the scream inside – the one that is ongoing today, that I am quite simply useless.

This isn’t an easy thing to confess to. I would like to say that I’m stronger, more dignified than all of this immature crap. But I’m not. So if and when I’m standoffish, flighty, don’t-give-a-shit, it’s because I’m afraid, and would rather walk with my own shadow than lean on someone else’s.

This is why, with the conveyor-belt of vague non-answers and let-downs received in the past 18 months – home, employment, personal relationships – I am reluctant and ducking away from anything that appears to tread the same faded lines. For all my irresponsibility and whimsy, I know – roughly – what it is I would like to see happen, for the next year at least. And I do emphasize this limited time frame, out of the (yawn) fear of commitment, and also, in practical terms, because I honestly don’t know where I will be in terms of mindset. I didn’t predict a relapse into depression this year. It took reading a blog entry posted on Twitter by a friend for me to even contemplate accepting the word as part of my current disposition. When the therapist had offered it up a few weeks beforehand, I’d batted away. Denial is a safe haven for people like me, the passive-aggressives of the world (unite and mutter darkly.)

So to plant any of this on somebody else, regardless of their intentions, seems too cruel and presumptive. A wound-up ball of cotton unravels eventually.

In all, I’m not really sure what I expect from the end of this year, and the beginning of the next – except perhaps, a little breath of security, and a static place to be, at least for another collective of seasons. That’s one thing I can say of this year – I’ve known peace, at least on a domestic level. Less fretting over bills and such, in comparison to 2013. But the absence of any genuine answers from the people who count, the ones who have the power to make a difference in my life, means I can’t actually trust them to hold to their word. Which is a sad place to be, but I can’t dwell on it long. Since childhood, I’ve been dependant on other people’s views, their opinions mattering far more than mine – whether they were aware of it or not. If I let this continue, I stand to lose all over again.

Or is it simply burning down the house with one match after another?

Maybe this is adult life. Constantly afraid, wondering if this month, this year will be the last with this person, in this place, in this time. Maybe we all just bob from one dream and hope and fuck and fear and worry and bill and whatever, to the next.

In which case, I guess I’m in good company.

Recolouring the mind

This synaesthetic mind is usually sparking over with some colour-pattern or another, some form of mood, passing like the lowering nimbus that follow the spine of the Beacon; or flicker-flaring like shafts of golden light that dance across the wings of white gliders and red kites, angling over the Downs.

When feelings are blunted, through writer’s block, depression or illness, the colours become muted shades. Imagine the negative of a photograph, and you’re close. I’ve yet to put my finger on why or how this happens, but am aware of it as a creeping sensation, as of whitewash bleeding down a wall. Clarity loses its edge; sharp lines are blurred into a “porthole” effect, which in its turn creates a rather narrowed scope of the world. Emotions follow suit (or perhaps it’s the emotional “whiteout” that leads), paling into a blank space that is neither up nor down, high nor low. Just … there.

And not much of a “there”, either.

I prefer to feel, even if it is a black hole of a mood. This nothingness is like burning the tongue, losing all sensation of texture and taste. Music that once lifted the hairs on my arms, now appears as flat colours of the mind, once so vibrant in accompaniment as they danced in silver-fine threads, or strident bars of mahogany, cream and ochre.

(The bowed guitar of Sigur Ros’ “Rafstraumur”, is an excellent example of the latter.)

I have to step away from the world for a time – at least, the sociable one. Cutting off all contact, speaking few words beyond politeness for a day or so, I follow the inevitable trail of childhood back to old influences. The people whose work first coloured my mind, washing it through with a sluice of paint; books and music, art. TV programmes. The sort of things that are best appreciated alone, no matter how much your fingers may itch to exact their details on social media, in imagery or images.

Believe me, I’ve tried. It can never have the same effect. It’s like trying to portray the heartbeat of a Rothko painting in a postcard. Nothing captures that eerie sensation of life within a canvas, until you’ve done it yourself – stood behind the blasted rope that keeps you from touching eternity (maybe a saving grace after all, for such disappointment would live in knowing that it really is only whorls of hard paint), and felt the walls breathe, seen the colours ripple.

The room goes silent and still. Your eyes slide down to the floor, upward and across – unable to look at the damn thing straight on, because it holds a gentle laugh at your own futility, mortality.

I have a quiet grin myself, now, remembering that room. Its light made of living shadows, maroon and purple and black.

The truth, I suppose, is that I need to break out more. To step away from these lines. It’s too easy to become embedded in daily habits, to lose a whole year in work, and weekends, and work again. But it seems that when I stop to look around, to take a breath and feel … something else happens. I know I’m pessimistic in this. I don’t want to become chipped china.

Alice Hoffman. Truman Capote. F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jeffrey Eugenides. Peter .S. Beagle. Authors who hold imagery in one hand and narrative threads in the other, and somehow manage to weave the two into a sensation of near-poetic prose. I come away feeling refreshed, more myself. It’s where the disconnect-reconnect occurs. It is finding the world again, through the artistic influences that once led you to believe there was more to life –

Than this solid state.

Metaphors flourish under new light, and I take to spotting things. Clouds that resemble spilled cotton balls, a blue-steel lake; the way a skein of geese resembles a great black arrowhead. How a favourite song fills my mind with the milk-honey sweetness of an early autumn sky.
(Cream and gold; you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins.)

And the old childhood favourites, of course – Jenny Nimmo, Brian Jacques, Robin Jarvis, Margaret Weis, Tracy Hickman. The ones who taught me that nothing is beyond suspension of disbelief, so long as the threads are strong enough. I threw away so many stories, as a kid, full of anger and frustration at my own imagination. Or rather, the lack of force behind it, my own dull willpower. D’you know what is so bloody odd, so iron-tang smile now, watching the actions of Putin and the Kremlin in Russia? I wrote similar things while in my teens – younger – then binned them, because I thought no one would believe me. That such narratives would never make it onto a shelf, because no antagonist could possibly get away with cutting off a town, a country, isolating them in poverty and bleeding out minds with propaganda (though I didn’t know these terms at the time, just the basic concepts.) The authorities of the world – other countries – would surely never allow this sort of power-play to happen; it could only exist in the fantasy novels I was reading at the time.
It’d never catch on. Not in the “real” world.

Of course, what I didn’t know then was that Brian Jacques had drawn upon the Second World War, as an influence for his Redwall saga. And then I took an interest in history myself, and began to read backwards.

Typical, really.
Truth –
Fiction –
Interchangeable.

More to the point – why, even then, did I give so much of a damn about what other people thought of my mind?

Well. That was then, this is now; and the only responsibility I will take from it all, is doing something about this paling mind. We govern our own futures.
Which simply means following myself back home.

Shutter down, Shining out

So here we are, on a day and in a time when the tears fall as rain on the mountains; when the sun is all the brighter in the sky, for our knowing it is still there. Coming in through my front door this evening, to the fragrant smells of wine and paella – my landlady is a great cook, and of the kindness that is bent around caring for others, so that I am always invited to join in at meals – I felt myself to be Home. The dog was curled up by the fire; warm smells of pine went trailing golden fingers through the house. Where others are not so fortunate, and have been hounded from the place of their birth, the land where ancestral bones lie deep as legends, I can claim this place for my sanctuary.  I know a newly-learned gratitude for all that I have, those seemingly small and insignificant things, as I once knew them after coming home from hospital. But it is too easy to forget, to become complacent again.

The wind is already turning blue on my side of the world, with a rawness in the pale arabesque of the morning. In these tumultuous days, we are leased into softer eyes and gentler smiles; our sharp shining edges are smoothed over by empathy. Shared sorrow, frustration, anger, fear. Doubt. Confusion. And still, more fear, as we wonder – with each click and scroll – what will happen next.

On Tuesday, 19th August, the world saw the face of its foe – what was revealed of it – hovering like a baleful moon above that of James Wright Foley, a US citizen and freelance photojournalist, captured in Syria in 2012. Though about to be taken by that most futile act called murder, for an even more futile cause, James didn’t flinch or try to pull away. He probably knew well enough where the contents of that video would end up, how it would be used for propaganda, as a shock of reality; for the awareness of the wider world, for the threat of the same fate meted out to others. Still, his face remained set as that of a clock, dialling down on its own time.

Perhaps the same is true for those who have watched the grim facts of that video in full. Perhaps they too, haven’t flinched. But, whatever their agenda, it cannot even begin to be measured against James’ own strength.

The perpetrators are more than willing to take the rest of humanity down with them, on their way to a faux-martyrdom. As James Kirkup of The Telegraph rightly pointed out, to call James’ death an “execution” is to give it more honour than it deserves. He was murdered, by hands and a heart too cold to know love and respect for another.

Walking home tonight, I found myself mulling over this, and other things that have come to pass. The blue-black cloud of inertia that had filled me up like ink sifting through water, slowly slipped away. In its place wove a silver thread of desperate hope, twined about with the pale green of worry … a thin petrol-rainbow of fear.

Passing through our local Muslim community, I found myself faced with the troubled faces and downcast eyes that are sadly reminiscent of other times. Such fear is palpable, like the wavering heat rising from a radiator. 9/11. 7/7. 22/5. Numbers that would be meaningless, without the context of death and tragedy, of atrocities carried out in the name of Islam; when it is the innocent followers of that faith who must bear the fallout. As though they had any part in it at all.

“We do not tolerate it, we forbid ISIS in Indonesia… This is a new wake-up call to international leaders all over the world, including Islamic leaders… [to] review how to combat extremism. Changing paradigms on both sides are needed – how the West perceives Islam and how Islam perceives the West.” – Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono, president of Indonesia.

I remember the face of my friend, who once walked the beat as a hate-crime officer, giving a sympathetic ear and trustworthy pledge of hope to those he served in the Muslim community; and his words, full of sadness, telling me of the young sons and daughters taken by shadows of fear; the mothers and fathers left behind, bewildered and terrified for their children. For each other.

I read the latest blog entry of my dear friend Nillu, who is a Shia Ismaili Muslim, and the fear becomes personal; it becomes a pale rim around my vision, half-thinking about what is best left unsaid, unknown. The future is what happens when it arrives, not what we try to foresee. She is Nillu, one of the loveliest and most empathetic women I have ever known, and the thought that anyone might think negative thoughts of her, based upon her religion, burns out my mind. She is the peace of her faith, personified.

I recall how on Monday, when our worlds met at the borderline of thought and dream, I had told my other beloved friend Amira that, while the little things matter in this life, the finer details, we cannot escape the Here and Now, how this affects us. When we hit those patches of black ice, nothing is so very important than to get the words down before the usual inertia of getting-by steers us back towards equilibrium. How else would we know, how else would we remember what had hit us hard? (Sometimes, it really is a case of diving into the nearest cafe or stairwell, to record a piece of existence that would otherwise go unnoticed, dropped like a coin into a well; a brief glitter, then blackness.)

To which she agreed, as ever she would, for we are alike as twins in mindset.  Her own blog entry wrapped itself about the anger and fear felt for Ferguson, a suburb in her hometown of  St Louis. While the tension has since begun to unwind, Amira’s entry – posted  in lieu of a literary article about fiction and publishing – told its own story of the immediacy of that situation, how it caught and affected her.

“Screw that blog post I wrote about literature and fiction – it can wait. There are more important things at stake right now.”

And yet, for all this – for all my waffle and whimsy in attempting to make sense of what I and others have witnessed, day by day, on rolling news feeds and carefully edited images – from the scene of James Foley’s last moments, and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine – I find myself, at the end of this day, so full of dark thoughts … and somehow still willing to get up and try again. For a smile and a prayer, at least.

Entering the cathedral for a walk between those dark-wood polished pews, drifting with the dust motes that are like so many silver sparks, I spoke aloud the words and cried the tears held back all day. I commended his memory to whoever might have been listening, anyone or no one. I have no particular faith. I just walk where there is peace to be found, between cool marble columns etched over with long-ago dates and names, upon rainbow-glitter sprays flung from the stained glass windows.

cathedral girl

James, I didn’t know you, or your family. But you symbolized what I want to be, what I want to achieve, and it’s for this reason that I take your words to heart, more than most.
You had your romantic ideals discoloured by reality, and still carried on. For that, no act of inhumanity can diminish your memory.

Following an unpleasant encounter with an unedited photograph taken from a jihadist Twitter account – tossed about with the carelessness of a tennis ball, among people who ought to have known better than to give the perpetrators the notoriety they seek – I decided to find out more about graphic content, its origins and uses. The principle focus was on how this type of media fits into the growing scope of social networking, as an instantaneous publisher. With the rise of portable technology, we have nothing to fear in terms of missing a moment in the world. What we have to fear instead, is the decrease in ethical judgement when it comes to sharing what we have found – live, unedited, raw footage, often taken from conflict zones and scenes of tragic events, passed about to … what? Inspire retaliation? Instil dread? The lines grow blurred. What is useful propaganda to one party, is click-bait to another; and to still others, it is a symbolic vocalization of what cannot be described in words. Though I do wish more people would try. For that matter, Twitter has at least started cracking down on graphic content, and is actively suspending accounts which would use it for propaganda and intimidation.

For all that I am a writer, with words supposedly my weapons (and you would think, some kind of clarity), metaphors and symbolism are all too often my fall-back. Such is the delight of Twitter, with its reams of information-imagery and algorithms, that I am never short of those stars for a constellation of emotional expression. A picture can sum up far more than I could put into words. That being said, I pull up short before pressing any buttons on the sort of content that has become an unpleasant side effect of following certain topics, in order to learn more. I’ll confess now, my fingers have itched. Some images have sent my mind down into a blankness that only long hours of walking, and missing a meal – startling my body awake with hunger – could shred. For long moments, I pause, wanting to show those who follow me – “Look. Look at this. Look at what these people who are not people, have done to this woman, this man, this child. Did you ever think that blood could run so thickly, that it turns black?”

But no. Because why should I be so selfish as to pretend there isn’t a sneaking voyeuristic pleasure-horror to be gained out of seeing others’ reactions? Or is it that I want to stand a mirror up between us to find the same emotions, the same words, to know that what I have seen is real, and not the darkest nightmare?

Oh, I still long to show you all, to make you understand how terrible the suffering was of those people … But I don’t know it myself, because I wasn’t there, and I didn’t experience it. I know nothing of the situation, but what I’ve seen from a tiny set of pixels in a frame, holding the last image of a person who was alive and breathing once, beloved, longed for, educated, born. That picture, that video, is but a fragment of who they were. Whatever the perpetrators of their death thought to gain in taking that last image, or allowing it to be taken, to be passed around on social networking sites, they can’t diminish these facts.

So why, then, should I have been so upset to see that image – the first piece of graphic media I had come across on Twitter – treated the way that it was, transferred from one user to another, to illustrate the point of the murderer’s violence?
Ah, there’s the paradox. I guess I would call it “dignity in death.”

This article from the Guardian, summed up what I have been trying to spit out for weeks about the perks and perils of sharing graphic content on social networking sites. Blogs such as this one, written by BBC journalist Alex Murray, and this on The Conversation, have helped me to see both sides of the flipped coin. Because I want to know how it feels to face that kind of reality, when it’s all caught in pixels on a screen in the newsroom, with only a hand to reach out and no way of changing the ending. I want to know, so I can better understand it.

“Whether or not a news organisation is right to use graphic material is a matter of opinion. But what this article has hopefully illustrated is that in certain cases the decisions to print or broadcast are taken with care and with a genuine desire to ‘do the right thing’. The mainstream media, if we can speak so generally, has its multitude of failings. But let’s not forget that when dealing with upsetting and harrowing imagery, journalists do not exist in a vacuum, unencumbered by the moral uncertainties that we all face.”
– John Jewell,
Director of Undergraduate Studies, School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies at Cardiff University.

We are all beholden to each other’s goodwill and ethical standards, on social networking sites – it’s a push-pull system of give and take. Each of us have a duty of care to our friends and followers, who come from diverse socio-cultural and religious backgrounds. In cyberspace, after all, there are fewer limitations on what can be seen; it is difficult to erase certain things from under the eyelids.
And we are not even on the ground as witnesses, feeling the whump of explosives and feeling the sting of heat, or handling raw footage for editing.

“That much of this material is shot point of view and handheld does have an impact. When this sort of video is edited, it’s pretty easy to treat it simply as ‘material’. When it is a single continuous shot, there is something about its unified perspective – as the point of view of a real person, not of a piece of a broadcast – that can be difficult to cope with.

This isn’t journalists trying to sort facts and report ‘the story’, this is people showing you what they are experiencing, as if to say: 
‘I don’t understand why this is happening. Why are they doing this to us? If I show you, then perhaps someone will explain what is going on.'” – Alex Murray, “The Hazards of war reporting from the other side of the world.”

While graphic media, submitted by citizens as user-generated content, can be used to raise awareness – drawing in a wider audience to the fracture-lines appearing in our world, and bringing to bear the reality of life under conflict – it is also known for its white-out effect of desensitization. There is the Long Blink of ignorance left in bliss – which none of us has the right to deny another, for our individual worlds are populated by enough troubles – or the self-propagating cycle of seeking out yet stronger content, more brutal scenes, to achieve the same effect. Then there is the consideration of safety for those with the means to produce such content.

“The temptation is to be out at the very front with them – where the fighting is more dramatic, more filmic. Front-line reporting – capturing and communicating the essence of war – is always a gamble, but one where we think we can set the odds… The further forward you go, the more powerful the pictures, but the greater the chances of being killed or injured. Our flak jackets and helmets are far from invincible. As a cub reporter I was always told never to become the story.” – Alastair Leithead, “Hazards of war reporting from the Libyan front line.”

“Journalists now constantly have to make difficult decisions about protecting the safety of people caught up in these events… But being aware of the need to do this doesn’t always come naturally if you’re not used to reporting wars from the newsroom.
What about the monitoring of phone calls or even email traffic?
What language can be used to identify yourself without endangering the contributor?
How do we introduce ourselves?
Is Gmail safer than Hotmail?” – Matthew Eltringham, Editor of the BBC College of Journalism website; “The new frontline is inside the newsroom.”

James Foley had the backing of the GlobalPost, based in Boston, but took no fewer risks than his peers. His death brings up again what freelance journalists face when reporting from warzones, “lightly resourced, laughably paid, almost wholly uninsured… often armed with little more than a notebook and a mobile phone.” There has been particular focus on Syria, where James was taken, which has been labelled “the most dangerous country in the world for journalists” to work in, by The Committee to Protect Journalists.

At least 69 other journalists have been killed covering the conflict there, including some who died over the border in Lebanon and Turkey. More than 80 journalists have been kidnapped in Syria; with frequent abductions, some of which go unpublicized, it is difficult to know exactly how many. CPJ estimates that approximately 20 journalists, both local and international, are currently missing in Syria. Many of them are believed to be held by Islamic State.”

I still have a petrol-rainbow trickle of an idea about what I would like to do in the near future. There are big decisions to be made. But more and more, with each turning leaf and golden bar of sunlight turning to brass, with each red-rim eye of a news story, I find my thoughts turning to my family. I see the bravery of the Foleys – read his mother’s words – and must now think on such things as consequences. For all that I have no further responsibilities or ties, other than my current job, there are still those left behind to consider.

There is only so much the human mind can take, before it must shutter down and shine out. I end my days now, after online research,by turning my phone off and sticking my head into an Alice Hoffman book. It’s this, or break under the heavy iron band stretched over my skull, leaving its tang in my throat, a soreness around my eyes.

There are always those sparks of drifting dust – our histories, our lives – to call us back. The beautiful smile of a friend, tweeting a picture of herself with family; the unique charm of a compliment for a posted story. The fluffed fur of a kitten with ocean eyes, caught in a noir photo; the lingering words of one who lies on the peripheral line where the sky meets the sea. The pleasant swatch of colours found in a tweet describing the morning-sounds of birds on the feeder, and bacon on the stove.

For all that the blood is a book, to be read over and again in the hopes of learning from our pasts … we live for the future, and it is Now. So while sharing the seemingly mundane, the cheerful, the cherished, we take our stand against those who would spread only darkness. When we speak of the dead, those taken from us in the most diabolical ways, let it be with images of who they really were – the people who lived, worked, spoke and fought for freedom, ours and theirs; for knowledge, for one more assignment, for one more day. In using hashtags like #ISISmediablackout and #StopPutin, we set our faces to the changing winds of tomorrow – denying the murderers and the liars the voices that would continue the fear and oppression – while remembering that today is for Us, and the memories of those who are gone.

It’s only when we stem the creativity, the playful tweets, the Good Mornings, the most wire-grin banter, that the perpetrators of that insidious fear have won.

Well, that’s me done. Hope I haven’t inadvertently offended anyone or left something important out; if I have, drop me a line and I’ll apologise. Otherwise, it’s

Guten nacht

from me.

If you want to continue following my work, I’m at https://lamplighthaven.wordpress.com now. Ta.

Lampenlicht

Another twilight, another moss-covered wall; another lampenlicht walk, under a sky threatening to split with the weight of its thoughts. Conflict, my dear friends … it is the word of today, tomorrow, forever. It doesn’t seem to end, so much as stir from one ripple to another. To another, to another.

We have slipped beneath its dark surface again, tinged by the reddening sky; and in all my fanciful dreams, all those silent-screaming thoughts of the night (only a handful of months ago, and somehow another time, another place already), I could not conceive of it all. Such sights. Things I, and other unfortunates, will never be able to erase from under the eyelids. Such white-out times of pain and loss, for those hounded across ancient diamond teeth.
And the long fingers of evil stretch further, and further across the walls of the land, slipping between the cracks of history, to rear up

– sudden and swift

against your own tomorrows –

Into today.

I dislike using the word “evil.” It is too easy, too sweeping; it does not allow for coherent debate, for the flip of a double-sided coin. No positive argument to make, though, for a head on a pike. For a child, spilt like a misspent word into the sand, into a timeline. Into the world, passing from one to the next, until the life is an image of itself.

No, I won’t forget you. I won’t, and never want to; because for all that your identity was stolen away in blood, your innocence, the new light in your eyes … You were a life, and you were someone’s beloved.
No, I won’t forget you. I wish we had met under any other circumstance but the baseless, senseless defilement of that symbolism, for all that the perpetrators had to go upon. Religion is not theirs to keep; the flame goes out in hands too cold to know life, reason, and love.

Oh my friends – we hold each other in these white-out times; we keep our minds cradled in the lap of knowing the other’s despair;
And oh my foes –
I know your shadow-name, and I know you for what you are.

beetle black

I fear for this world, and am trying to find myself ready for it. Insofar as anyone can be ready, setting their face to the sky, to the watchful sun; to the circling pen-mark of rooks on the wind; the haggard trees, the lampenlicht nightwalk, and my old comrade-in-arms; the Lady Cathedral.

cathedral girl

lampenlicht

Tonight, I listened to the piping sweet-bell language of the bats, and knew the changing of the watch. The leaves are burning up on the buildings, scarlet as the mornings and ragged to their tips, like the wings of the rook, like the frayed ends of my hair.
It is almost blonde again; that brown-gold colour of youth. Combined with a near-normal body, I am slowly coming back around to what once was, while keeping these gentle lines about the eyes, these freckles on my nose; this somewhat yellowed laugh, like a papyrus scroll unrolled, filled with spider-black lines.

Uncover our heads and reveal our souls; we were hungry before we were born.

The past catches us up in the end. Run as hard as you might, and you run only from yourself.

I am quitting this blog tonight. It is too full of last year, which was painful, and still aches to the touch. There are places in town, across counties, which I still cannot enter, for the ghosts that run past me, trailing thoughts and feelings in their wake. Each time I think myself known in this new life, I am somehow only my own shadow, crawling up the wall.

You, Nosferatu; you long fingers, you smiling-abuser, you – with your burning touch, who would not let me go. Who still find my dreams, and riven them all around with brambles, choke me in mud of the past, until I am fighting awake and screaming for air –

And it will not end, until I turn and stop running. Stop running, and turn, turn about again, and find the light in all places, the one which will never go out. It has been here before, has come again; a different intensity each time. It is life, and love, and knowing that these claws sink only so far; that the nightmares will die in the day, with the dreams.

One coin, two sides.

I am wondering at the validity of this therapy. For all that I used to come awake and know myself frayed, frail, parched in the throat, dying a little more inside, but still alive – now, I find it difficult to feel anything at all.
To connect one thought to another, to find the patterns that were constellations. Or perhaps this is end-game after all, and I am walking ahead.
I see nothing but darker days, as yet. Anyone could tell you that, I suppose. You only have to look at the pitfalls awaiting the Eurozone; at the blue winds rising over Russia and Ukraine; at the red-rimmed eyes of the sun, the morning that fades a little more with each breaking heart.

I had thought myself paled into Forever, and had all but decided to disappear, back up into the tower of clicking needles and spinning thread. Those red-black stones called; the brambles lashed against the sky, filled with an everlasting storm made of torn angel wings, and a man’s blood on a knife clenched in her hand. That was a story and a song of long ago, when I was … about thirteen, I think. I had forgotten it, until now.

“You should never run from anything immortal, it attracts their attention.”
or indeed –
“Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.”

Shorn wings, and the silver-fire cage of an Ever-Storm; that angel learned what it is to love a mortal, to feel the chillness of steel on bone, marking her as one like him after all; while forgiveness and punishment found her still, huddled into the rain-fretted mud, as one of His own. No love goes unacknowledged, no tear is forgotten. Silver and white, and blue and black; red as the life on the long thistle-song.
Jealousy reaps its own rewards.

barnes elias

But then came this, the lark’s rising song in the voice of Vicky Beeching; and I found myself able to cry, and to know colours again, and – while still alone, without touch
(which comes closer to a feather-trail of memory, every day)
I was awake and aware, and feeling what should be. Rubbing my cheek, and drinking a black-hearted coffee, and going on with a smile.
Such bravery in the writing, you would find in the heart of a unicorn, for all its ageless pain and wisdom; the ability to touch so many, to lift them from the dark place where we may go, from time to time.

Oh Robin. If only I had such words as these, by the inimitable John Underwood, to set the last bar. You were a dear childhood friend, known on a soundtrack to my RAF youth; found in a film for the rough-ready teens; and a summer sun of adulthood, which will never die.

apola sun

Keep the streets empty for me, Liebe.
Now I know your face, and I know your name
(the one you will learn; we are roles reversed, through the clock)
May it be a light for you in dark places, when all other lights go out.
My King of Swords. Cut which-and-every-way, the song remains the same.
Dreaming of Mercy Street.

Personal Preference

It seems a simple enough concept, doesn’t it? We avoid what we don’t like, and lean towards what we enjoy; what brings a positive aspect to our lives. Meeting up with friends; choosing food for a meal; picking up a book from the library, to read on the train to work.

OK, with regards to that last one – the job we have may not be the ideal choice, but that’s also a natural part of life. As adults, with responsibilities and an adherence to laws that state we can’t have everything we want, we know that there are times when the boring / painful / difficult choice, is the right one. Sometimes, there is a convoluted path towards the things we enjoy. But overall, especially with regards to the simple things in life, many of us can and do find ways of expressing our freedom of choice. I won’t go into the intricacies of different cultures and religions, here. That’s too much of a grey area for me to handle with any kind of aptness, and besides, it’s not what this blog post is about. I’d only make a hash of it, and inadvertently upset someone. This is a lot of the reason why my blogging, my writing in general, has fallen by the wayside lately; I’m just too afraid to open my mouth, to get the words down, with the freedom of previous years. For all that I sometimes wish to have a good mouth-off about something or another, the fact is I’d probably fudge the facts, having not researched enough. So.

I just get on with what I do know, for now.

Anyway. 8.30pm on Saturday last, saw me standing in the aisles at my local Tesco, desperately trying to strike a balance between cost effectiveness (e.g. How cheap can I go without eating flavoured water?) / a chronic eating disorder (anorexia nervosa) / my mother’s lamentations that I don’t vary my diet enough (I do tend to stick with the same things day in, day out, for the dual purpose of saving cash and staying “safe”, calorie-wise.) So basically, I’m resorting to canned goods over fresh, and anything on the value-side of products … with the added bonus of sticking to healthier options, while trying to introduce variation to a stick-in-the-mud diet, to stay topped up on the vitamins and minerals, and the energy for this blue-arsed fly routine that is life.

I know I’m not the only one forced to make these choices between eating healthily and eating at all – but when you throw an ED into the mix, it all becomes that much more shady. In the end, I threw in the towel, with no small amount of self-disgust, and wrote out a rant on Facebook; a status update which, in retrospect, was highly irresponsible of me, considering I have friends who have been through similar experiences with eating disorders on this platform, and would no doubt dislike having the reminder of it rubbed in their faces on a scroll through their timeline. It went something along the lines of wishing for food pills rather than having to make constant choices about food. I know I’d have been triggered / upset, reading something like this elsewhere. But that’s just me, I can’t speak for everyone.

Walking away from the store, I could only concentrate on how difficult all the decision-making was, and how angry / futile this made me feel. By the next morning, I viewed it with more of a cold dismay – there was more of the illness speaking through me, than has been apparent for quite some time. Or maybe I just choose to notice it now. Whatever the case, the fact remains that there ARE a damn sight more ways I can improve my situation … if I’ve got the guts to go about making actual changes.

I don’t stop to think about things like this too often. Those were the bad old days; now, I prefer to obsess over things like politics, kittens and writing. I’ve narrowed down the types of exercise I actually like to engage in, as opposed to what burns off the most calories. I drink what alcohol is appealing to my taste – a rare concession, but this is Captain Morgan Original Spiced rum we’re talking about, here.

(Mixed with diet coke, it’s the praline green triangles found in Quality Street packs.)

And maybe this has been the problem. My new therapist certainly seems to think so. It is her belief that, in burying my head in other activities over the years, I’ve managed to shutter-down in a comfortable / complacent state of slow progression towards recovery, while not actually addressing the underlying problems. Her point now, is to find out what makes me tick; to help me push against boundaries again, so this Thing will be kicked into touch for good.

One of her aims is something that my landlady happens to advocate, too – “living in the moment.” Well, I always thought I was fairly good at this, since it seems I almost *hear* Time passing these days, and am frantic to get as much done as possible –
Oh.

See?

So, we’re going over my life with a fine-toothed comb, defining what I Want to Do v.s. What I think I Should do. Like stripping woodbine from around an oak tree, we’re gradually pulling away the ingrained tendencies that I thought were personal characteristics – parts of me that I don’t particularly like, with beliefs and ideals that now ring hollow. This is a very destabilizing thing, like the end of a relationship – gazing around, you wonder which items belong to who? Flicking through your iPod, you try to find a song that is not relevant to the partner who has been as much a part of your life as breathing. You wonder if any books on the shelf, will not hold a reminder of them.
You wonder where the parts of yourself that are unequivocally You, have gone off to.

A similar project took place as part of group therapy place on one of the eating disorders wards. We were tasked with rediscovering our true selves – what did we like to do, which might compromise the illness and challenge its place in our lives? What were the activities we engaged in which, on reflection, were not so enjoyable after all, but felt mandatory to existence?
More to the point – who were the people we looked up to, respected, admired? What had our childhood lives focused on, which made us feel secure and happy?

At first, as ever, cloud-shadows made more sound while passing along the carpet, than the people huddled on the circle of chairs. After some prodding, there were the usual expressions of admiration for top athletes, an inclination for high-impact / energetic sports. One staff member – I remember her face and name so well, we nicknamed her The Sergeant – cocked a very deliberate eye at us all.
Nope. You’ve got to try harder than that.

Eventually, we did get some more credible answers from everyone, myself included. The trouble was getting past the guilt that snarls up the throat, when expressing a preference for something that is unconnected to the rigid routines that were at once unique to us when played out as symptoms, and wholly universal in terms of the disordered mindset of self-worth. Speaking to others who have recovered from, or are in recovery from anorexia, I’ve learned that the fear of “punishment” from the voice in the mind, is all too real. It got to the point where, at my lowest state of health, I did not dare write or speak a single bad word against the illness, or complain about how tired / ill I felt, in case It – whatever It was – sought revenge. Exercise and starvation were not a “punishment” for my body and mind – they were there to keep me safe from distracting emotions and thoughts.

Such is the way of the starved mind. Perspective is hard to come by, when wrapped up in tightening wires.

For my part, I defined exercise as fulfilling only in terms of how it made me feel worthy of being alive, with a valid reason to eat. When we broke past that, I finally admitted to an admiration of, and a desire to keep the grace that is synonymous with ballet, rather than how it might rid me of food.

When the question was put to me, Could you engage in a less vigorous activity, which holds the same amount of poise? – I fell silent.

Those who were at the stage of awareness which I live in now, were more open and original with their answers. Artists such as Van Gogh and Bernini were cited as important influences; pastimes that could be classified as being more “sedentary” than “active”, were given as methods of entertainment and relaxation. Listening to them, I found myself at once inspired and repulsed. It took me back to the old journals I have been keeping since age 11; filling each page nestled between the pretty tooled covers with the flux-flow of adolescence. Letters exchanged with classmates are stuck inside, kept safe in their envelopes, along with tablet-sized pictures from an afternoon spent wandering around the old Clay Pits of my home town, under a pewter sky and among dry-rattle grass, with the gang of peers who were my best friends and confidantes. Pressed flowers and leaves; swatches of fur, plucked from barbed wire fences, with identifying scrawls beside. It’s all there – the map of my childhood and teen years, done up in sensory pockets of memory. Needless to say, once I was out of therapy, I asked my mother to bring those journals up on her next visit. Poring over them brought back such a sense of Self – the person I once was – that when I cried, it felt like the release that had been waiting behind my eyes for some time.

But it is not healthy or beneficial, to stay stuck in the past. Had I tried to reclaim that youth without progressing forward, I wouldn’t be at this stage of life now – suddenly aware of new possibilities, new interests which, while influenced by the old, are sure to take me off on a myriad different paths.

There is a balance that must be found between body and mind – I’ve spent too long trying to separate one from the other, believing that I can push through shock, fear, illness and the like, to continue a workout even while dying inside. Such was the case in 2005, when a relative of mine was killed in a road traffic collision; when my mother sent the text, I was standing in the gym changing rooms with trainers laced on my feet, and a painful heart. I lasted all of two minutes on the treadmill, before breaking off in a cold sweat of mingling fear, self-disgust and the inexpressible sorrow of losing a loved one. That I could not finish the workout because of the latter, didn’t occur to me then. I just felt like a failure.
Perspective, huh.

*

I have suddenly woken to the realization that we are, undeniably, halfway through the year. Summer is here. Each time I lift my head from studying an article on my phone, or unplug my ears from whatever’s winding out of the iPod, it is to be hit with something akin to the wide-eyed amazement of a child on its first trip outdoors. Every sense has been triggered anew by what is growing and living outside; things appear refreshed and fulfilled, as though lifting themselves from the pages of a pop-up book. The golden bars of sunlight falling between sepia shadows of woodland, are almost solid; smells which long lay dormant throughout chill winter and muddy spring, now make a harlequin of the air.

I am all the more keenly aware of the kinetic world, for my absence from it for some time. As ever, this obsessive personality has had its way in taking me a bit too far down the road. In researching the wide world – its politics, its economics, its cultures and religions and all the lives that fit in between – I had somehow lost myself along the way. Looking around, I find the myriad tiny changes that have happened without my noticing them – the twins are a bit taller, the days are longer (while slipping quietly back downhill), the woodlands are full of tree shadows and glittering glades. I have missed those routes through the wilder places of the world – such is the way of an independent life spent as a perma-pedestrian, that I tend to walk everywhere to save money, and so spend a lot of time on the cobbled pavements and heavy-tang tarmac. This gets the dull chores and the shopping done … but it is a bit of a snorefest, and my phone holds a ream of worlds, waiting in literature and friendships formed through social media and a meeting of minds.

But in detaching myself all too often from where my body is, I’ve found stagnation when it comes to writing. I don’t know about you, but I can no more set out a scene that is lacking sensory angles, than I could live off a diet of paper and stick-lines. There is only so much we can glean from literature, from the language of others, before there is a need to experience such things for ourselves – to head out under a murderous sky, to know the rise of hair along our arms and the rise-fall of fear and anticipation in the chest, with the low chuckle of thunder. When the faces around us are little more than absent moons, who are we to draw characters from?

Then there is a need to to go outside of our comfort zones, to strike a match of creativity. Forcing the hand to march out line after line of words to fit some count or another, is a futile exercise when there is little emotional context to fall back on. The writing process itself becomes arduous.

In point of fact, this entry began in the stop-start manner that has come to define my writing process over the past few months. Where once the words were as oil over ice or a skein of geese thrumming home, they are now husky, rattling cough of an old man, the tottering steps of a newborn. I think I’ve become too aware of myself in writing, in the way an actress may be struck with stage-fright with the glare of lights in her eyes. In trying to remember her lines, to avoid fucking up, she forgets those lucid moments of presence that were found in front of the mirror and in rehearsals, alone and with others, awake and asleep, when the purest joy was knowing the merest trace of an expression would carry to the farthest members of the audience.

Is it possible to feel claustrophobic inside your own mind, while at the same time locked out of your own soul?

A child is singularly powerful in knowing its own wants and needs, its likes and dislikes. I like to observe this in my landlady’s twins. They are two of the most charming, intelligent and inquisitive children I have ever known, and I have great respect for their mother in raising them towards this yin/yang balance of personalities. While they are very close, they are not obsessed with one another; they can be apart, though prefer to keep within each other’s zones of awareness. But it is a wonderful thing to watch their very different preferences at work.

Winter moon can chase summer sun across the sky forever, and never truly know her face; summer sun may ask for the coolness of that crescent blue, and never really learn to bask in its shade. But still, they are in keeping with one another, and between them they share the world. While one will exert authority in a golden rise of temper and laughter, the other – with a curve of a smile and the quietest wit – will unpick the sibling’s fine points, until they are at odds with each other and in so subtle a manner that you would think a spider makes more noise upon its web.

Night and day, I like to call them. Into everything, and bringing a fresh perspective to each others’ lives through their different observations … and to mine. I had no real interest in children before meeting these two, but they are just small adults in waiting. Sometimes, one will say something to the other – or to the open air, the wide-eye sky – and it will make me stop and stand still, listening to the thrum of my heart and the wavering heat of the day, the lake-heart silt of evening.

I think they are old souls. I intend to learn from them – to become part of the “moment” that their mother speaks of, and my therapist is urging me to engage with by occasionally shutting off from the world, to be quiet and still, to come back from whatever country my mind has travelled to in reading a story or article. To live inside myself, without the distractions of radio and music, literature and technology. Language becomes the sifting of dust motes, the trail of reacting to a shift in the light and the air of a room. The heaviness of buddleia sprays, their thick liquorice smells and buzzing acquaintance of bees, are as chapters to read against a pastel sky.

It is no one else’s fault but mine, that what may begin as a pleasurable experience should turn into an inability to switch off. But switch off I must, from time to time, and disappear to regain that sense of Self; to know the various shades of Time, outside of a quick-scrolling platform of social media and reading material. There’s a need for us all to escape our own heads once in a while, or to be alone inside them. If nothing else, it will save me from any more bruises – a throwback to childhood, when walking home from school with my head in a book, saw me collide with as many lamp posts as brick walls. I’m fairly sure that anyone in possession of a mobile device, has been through this rather embarrassing / painful experience themselves.

So. As it is now a golden Sunday evening, and I have finally completed this overlong entry, I am going to bugger off outside for a walk, sans mobile and iPod. When all is said and done, we have enough responsibilities and expectations on our time, without putting pressure on ourselves to always Be Somewhere, Saying Something. In switching off, we come back refreshed, and with far more to say to the world and the page. We gain experience to fill out the words, and – in taking a step back – can assess the larger picture. All the small efforts of others, their words and actions which are done for our benefit, suddenly make a lot more sense.

Guten abend.